Is it OK to torture?

Is it OK to torture?

Is it OK to torture?

Arts and arguments in the news.
Nov. 28 2001 12:40 PM

Torture Laws

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter and Alan Dershowitz might want to reconsider any plans they have to visit France. A month ago, the journalist and lawyer proposed certain forms of torture as a means to elicit information from captured al-Qaida terrorists and their accomplices. If these methods fail, Alter suggested "transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical"—meaning, presumably, that the United States could extradite troublesome suspects to nations where beating is an engrained part of the criminal justice system. ( Christopher Hitchensdenounced Alter's and Dershowitz's proposals in The Nation.)

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In France, however, to advocate torture can in itself be a crime, as former French Gen. Paul Aussaresses now knows. Aussaresses' firsthand account of French actions during Algeria's struggle for independence, Special Forces—Algeria 1955-57, which was published earlier this year, outraged French human rights groups, who responded to the book's appearance by invoking a little-known law that would allow them to bring the general and his publisher to trial. Proceedings began on Monday. The Human Rights League pointed to passages in Aussaresses' book such as the following: "The best way to make a terrorist talk when he refused to say what he knew was to torture him. … Torture is extremely efficient. In the majority of cases people crack and talk. Afterwards, most of the time, we'd finish them off. Did that pose a problem for my conscience? I have to say it did not." These words, according to the Human Rights League, do break French anti-torture laws, and the general should be punished accordingly. If convicted, Aussaresses would face a maximum of five years in jail.

As for the general, he is unrepentant and says in his defense that his actions occurred in another moral climate. "I would do [the torturing] again today if it were against Osama bin Laden," he said on Monday. "These were not reprisals. ... It was a case of stopping actions which were being prepared for deeds that would cause the deaths of French citizens in Algeria."